Leone Brander/AGNI: Your story “Night Beat,” while fictitious, features two non-fictitious Elisas—Elisa Boyer and Elisa Lam. Boyer was the woman Sam Cooke was with the night he was shot in 1964, and likely played a role in his death. Lam was a student from Canada whose body was found in 2013 in a water tank of the Cecil Hotel in LA. Her death was the subject of viral speculation, as it went largely unexplained. In your story, Boyer is named but Lam is kept anonymous. What went into that decision?
Lisa Chen: Some years ago I went through a period when I wasn’t writing but making “boxes”—assemblage-type dioramas inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell. I learned two things by making them: one, a box either worked or didn’t work, and the feeling of inevitability when a box clicked into place couldn’t be forced but was generated by a somewhat mysterious, gravitational pull among objects; two, I would have had to amass a tremendous number of objects and ephemera to really get good at boxes. (Cornell famously kept tens of thousands of found objects, papers, and what-not in the cellar of his house on Utopia Parkway.) When I moved to New York, I more or less stopped making them.
I don’t write many short stories. The ones that I do write tend to come together like boxes. I find the thing I want to think on: Sam Cooke’s album “Night Beat” in this case, which leads to curiosity about how he died. (But this is not the story.) Years later, along with millions of other people, I watch the surveillance video of a woman behaving strangely in an elevator. (The story starts coming together.) Finding Elisa Boyer felt like a historical excavation. My instinct was to share what I’d found—including her name. Reading Elisa Lam’s blog feels shameful, morbid, voyeuristic. Not that the Cooke/Boyer affair lacked for voyeurism and sensationalism—but the intervening decades, I would argue, alter the stakes. Maybe my decision not to include Elisa Lam’s name had something to do with this queasiness and my own collusion. Or maybe it was a way of acknowledging how the sensational and viral makes the identity of the person at the center irrelevant. She becomes something else entirely. Like the boxes, I didn’t overthink it.
It says something about my process that I didn’t realize the two women shared the same name until you asked this question.
What was the process of connecting these women through fiction like? How did you construct the fictitious parts of your story to complement them? Did you know right away what the story would be?
I didn’t know where the story would go, but I knew I wanted to explore the feeling of voluntary displacement—knowing it’s time to leave a familiar place but not yet understanding where you’re supposed to go—or who to be. Los Angeles, because of its vastness, is a city I’ve always feared being lost in and swallowed by. Part of this feeling comes from not having a driver’s license, so every time I go there, I am being driven, and this creates a disembodied sense of travel not unlike a dream. The stories inside the story—the noir-ish nightmare of Sam Cooke’s death, Elisa Lam’s disintegration as a stranger in a strange land—are manifestations of this dislocated anxiety. The glue between the stories is the city itself.
In my twenties I met an older woman not unlike Lily who struck me as impossibly cosmopolitan (I had never had prosciutto-wrapped honeydew slices before) but also a little sad because she seemed out of time. By that I don’t mean she was close to death but that I felt, as I don’t necessarily feel with other older people, that her heyday was behind her. A person can feel dislocated not only in space, but in time too. And then of course there is the profound alienation of online dating, which is practically its own genre. My favorite short stories are not too tightly wound but seem to both unravel and gravitate toward certain events and memories, the way our lives do. The “fictitious parts” are built around this movement.